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Violin virtuoso Owen Pallett spills his guts on Dungeons & Dragons, going solo and why Rufus Wainwright isn't a gay artist
FINAL FANTASY with TORNGAT at the Music Gallery (197 John), Saturday (June 25), 7:30 pm. $8. 416-204-1080.
You wouldn’t know it from the way he can silence a crowd with a few deft strokes of his bow, but when he steps onstage solo with his violin, Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett is on orange alert.
Even after months on tour opening for – and playing with – the ridiculously hot hypemonster Arcade Fire, along with years spent fiddling with the Hidden Cameras and the Jim Guthrie Band as the Toronto indie scene’s go-to guy for swooning string arrangements, Pallett still gets petrified when he has to go it alone.
“It’s like a high-wire act, and I’m not used to it yet,” he sighs.
It’s almost like regressing back to his childhood piano recital days, admits the classically trained Pallett, who – shockingly – only picked up the violin while he was at U of T studying composition.
“I was never good at that either. I get butterflies when I’m just trying to sound good in my room. I’m gonna sound like an alcoholic, but the worst part is that playing solo is enough of a task that I can’t even drink before I go onstage – not even a beer.
“I’m only doing this because people continue to ask me to do it.”
Let’s hope they keep asking.
For something that started as a lark, prompted by a tribute show for Portland cult singer Bobby Birdman last spring, Final Fantasy has grown into a jarringly gorgeous juggernaut beyond anything Pallett anticipated.
Named for the ever-evolving video game (he’s also a big nerd), his unconventional pop project is two things, both of which straddle a lovely liminal space between formal classical composition and unpretentious chamber pop with unabashedly pretty melodies punctuated by sporadic shouts and yelps.
On disc – the slightly uneven but stunning Has A Good Home (Blocks), which dropped in February – Pallett is assisted by engineer Leon Taheny, a cast of friends and the mythical St. Kitts Quartet for a 16-song opus of kinetic, dynamic songs with arrangements that ricochet and flutter like an orchestral soundtrack for a pinball game.
Live, those dynamics are magnified and transformed (sometimes literally) into a full-scale shadow show during which the lanky, schoolboyish Pallett weaves about while plucking and sawing valiantly at his instrument, combining looped arco arcs with pizzicato counterpoint and enough breathing room for an often hypnotic sonic atmosphere.
This is music much closer in tone to the confrontational pop assault of, say, Fugazi or Deerhoof than to stodgy symphonies or the po-faced avant-garde experimentation beloved of academia.
Pallett loves breaking down those boundaries – why else would he cover Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody, or Good Mother, by Canuck soft rock’s reigning queen, Jann Arden?
“I love that song,” he says, shuffling his feet in the sandbox we’re perched on in a playground in the Market.
We’re hanging out on Augusta Avenue, the street that greeted him with puking drunks and reminded him why he loves Toronto when he returned from touring and a post-tour vacation days earlier.
It’s barely a week before the show, at which he plans to preview seven of the 11 songs he’s written for the next Final Fantasy disc, and Pallett hasn’t finished the string quartet’s arrangements, but he still gets revved up talking about his musical ideology.
“A Coldplay song is written with a specific idea of emotional manipulation. When you watch Patch Adams, you can hear the composer thinking, ‘Time for another tear-jerking moment,’ and you’re groaning cuz it’s another string swell.”
Pallett’s own songs catch you off-guard with unexpected narrative swerves. Some, addressed to unnamed “you”s, seem penned in the wake of collapsing relationships or seedy sex and leave you worried you’ve intruded on a private party. Others, like The CN Tower Belongs To The Dead or The Chronicles Of Sarnia, spin Canuck iconography, urban life and fractured politics into gothic fables fit for a fantasy novel.
Then there are songs like This Is The Dream Of Win & Regine (named in honour of the Arcade Fire’s core couple), which eviscerates the rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale.
“I try to stay in touch with my more embarrassing, nerdy side,” Pallett explains. “I don’t feel like a cool person. I feel more like a person who’d be very happy playing Grand Theft Auto all day, and I feel like that person has a whole series of revelations and ways of looking at the world that are under-expressed in other forms of music. What does a nerd think?”
Apparently, nerds think about Dungeons and Dragons. A lot. Pallett’s ambitious new album finds him exploring D&D’s eight schools of magic – but don’t expect arcane suites about 12-sided dice.
Instead, he delves into the ways magic – from divination to illusion – manifests itself in our everyday lives.
One song, he says, is based on the idea of necromancy, and was inspired by his godfather, who committed suicide when Pallett was 10.
“He was the greatest man I’ve ever known, but I have no fond memories. When I see stains on the sidewalk, that’s when I think of him. At the same time, his act of killing himself has pulled me back from the brink. Whenever I start to feel those feelings, I imagine the most selfish person I’ve ever met, and I hold myself back.”
These sorts of Big Themes, like love and death, interest Pallett far more than didactic identity politics.
While he and his boyfriend, Patrick, may have invested in engagement pants (not rings, but trousers) earlier this year, Pallett’s not gonna pen the next gay liberation anthem.
Having done time in the Hidden Cameras trenches, he’s well aware of the tricky politicking and pigeonholing that can occur when people want to lay claim to you as an artist with a particular agenda.
He’ll happily identify as a queer artist, and there’s some sex along with the violins in his music, but there’s something to be said for the fact that Pallett is one of a number of non-hetero artists playing non-Pride-related shows during Pride Week.
“I’m taking a cue from Joel Gibb,” he begins. “He and I are very different people, and we’re very different in terms of the way we’ve assessed our sexual identities, but one thing I really respect about him is that his music has less to do with his identity and more to do with the more interesting aspects of himself.”
Pallett ruminates about the “push-and-pull battle” Nico faced when she started making music. Frustrated by the fact that folks focused on her beauty and dismissed her as a serious artist, the former model spiralled toward drug-addled self-destruction.
“She wanted to distance herself from people’s perceptions, to allow them only her music as a touchstone. I think it’s interesting to apply that idea to queer politics. As far as whether the music I make is gay or queer, yeah, it comes from the fact that I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean I’m making music about it.
“There does need to be art about sexual identity, but it’s not really what I think a lot of successful gay artists focus on. Rufus Wainwright is not a gay artist, for example. Well, that Gay Messiah song is almost like a manifesto. He doesn’t want people to be let down because his music’s not gay enough, or not political enough.
“That’s an attitude I personally identify with.”